Friday, November 13, 2009

Not just a jury, a GRAND jury

I suppose it's appropriate that on "Jury Friday" today I will be presenting a murder case to the grand jury.

"The what?" you ask. "What's so grand about it?"

Well, nothing really. But here's a little bit about grand juries.

A grand jury is made up of twelve citizens, much like a trial jury, and they meet several times a week. All that they do is done in secret, but they have one main function:

To review cases and decide whether to "true bill" or "no bill" them. That means indict or not indict.

Basically, an ADA presents information about a case, talks about the defendant, why he or she was arrested, giving the facts based on the police report. This is a one-sided process, the defense doesn't get to say, "Hold on, but what really happened was..." The idea is that these twelve people are saying, "Fine, you have enough to proceed with a formal charge." So they don't decide guilt or innocence, they decide whether there is enough evidence to warrant a trial.

In making their decision, a grand jury has certain powers, the chief one being the power to subpoena witnesses or evidence. So if an ADA presents a serious case and the grand jurors think, "Hmmm, maybe.. but we want to hear from Witness X," or "We need to see medical records," then those can be obtained.

The one-sided nature of the process has led to some criticism. For example, Sol Wachtler, the former Chief Judge of New York State, jokingly observed that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to "indict a ham sandwich."

Now that would be an interesting test.

However, I'm not indicting a ham sandwich today. I'd tell you more but then I'd have to... well, break the Vow of Grand Jury Silence.

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